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Promise and Distinction Demystified

July 8, 2005

Suzanne Johnson
Michael DeMocker

Q&A With Tulane University President Scott Cowen

TULANIAN: The theme of the comprehensive fundraising campaign is "Promise and Distinction: The Campaign for Tulane University." What do the words "promise and distinction" mean to you?

tulspr_05_qacowen_1COWEN: There are more than 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, and Tulane University clearly is among the most respected and highly regarded of those institutions. It would be safe to say that by any metric you could think of, we would be in the top 50 of those institutions.

Just by virtue of having that profile, we are already a very distinctive university -- distinctive in the sense that our quality, our impact and our reputation puts us among the very best in the country. But as distinctive as we are today, there is still the potential for us to elevate ourselves further in terms of our impact and our reputation, nationally and internationally.

We are at an interesting moment in our history -- we have made such tremendous progress and yet with just a bit more effort we can propel ourselves into the very top ranks of institutions in the world. So when I talk about distinction, I mean that we already rate extremely well in all the measures of education, research and community outreach. Yet, we still have so much potential that can be realized as an institution, and that's the promise.

TULANIAN: What is your response to those who ask, "Why does it matter? Why should we strive to achieve even more?"

COWEN: I think one of the most important aspirations an institution should have is self improvement. By improving ourselves, we not only do a better job of preparing the next generation of leadership but we also enhance the quality of our contributions to society. By virtue of being in higher education, we have an obligation to continue to learn and improve ourselves as institutions. If we don't do that, how can we expect it of others who are part of our community? Continuous improvement, self-development, the striving to achieve the next level of accomplishment -- these are indigenous to higher education and what we stand for and what we are all about.

TULANIAN: We've been in the "silent phase" of the campaign for quite a while now, but why run a major fundraising effort in the current economic climate -- why is it important to do it now and not wait until the economy improves?

COWEN: Everyone wants to start a campaign in the boom times, hoping that the boom times will last forever and that your organization will reap the benefits in terms of philanthropy. But the fact of the matter is that it's important for the institution to begin the campaign when the institution stands ready to do it. You need to have the legacy of accomplishment that gives a sense of confidence and pride to your institution's friends and alumni, and you must be able to articulate the dreams and aspirations for the future and what the institution will be or could be so that people are willing to give to the institution.

And if you make that compelling case, the state of the economy is not important because people are inspired. They will understand that economic times are cyclical, but sustaining the greatness of an institution is a long-term proposition that requires continual investment.

TULANIAN: How do you go about deciding the institution's campaign goals, and how they are allocated? The goal for the current campaign is $700 million.

COWEN: Establishing a campaign goal is not a scientific endeavor. It's based on the needs of the institution combined with the capacity of the alumni base and friends to give. And through a very subjective, yet thorough, assessment of needs and capacity, one begins to establish a goal that represents a stretch for the institution -- one that you have to work hard to achieve but is not unreasonable in light of the depth and breadth of the relationships with friends and alumni.

I think we've proven through the silent phase of the campaign that there is a high level of sustainable giving to the institution every year, and therefore to elevate that for the completion of the campaign is not unrealistic, even though it will require our alumni and friends to give at participation rates and in dollars at a much greater rate than they have ever done before. But I think they are capable of it, and I think we have made the case that we have earned the right for that investment dollar.

TULANIAN: What is the fundraising strategy for the campaign -- is there a greater focus on corporate dollars than on individual donations?

COWEN: The vast majority of the dollars will probably come from individuals and private organizations, whether they are foundations or companies. We have an alumni base that is really impressive when you look at the credentials and accomplishments our alumni have achieved in every imaginable walk of life. The campaign will allow us to tell our story and, hopefully, people will be inspired by that story and motivated to make an investment. In the end, people want to invest in organizations in which they have confidence, in which they have pride, and in which they want to see success because by that organization succeeding everybody associated with it is elevated.

TULANIAN: There also are many alumni and friends who are not financially able to make large gifts. Are the small gifts important as well?

COWEN: Absolutely. We need to achieve two things in this campaign: one is to raise a lot of dollars -- and that obviously is critical when you have a large goal -- but the other is to increase the participation rate of giving. That is so important, because one of the factors that is used in evaluating an institution is the participation rate of its alumni -- it is symbolic of how the alumni feel about the institution. So the small gift is important because it not only raises dollars -- remember, if you raise $1 from a million people that's $1 million -- but because the participation rate is so important to the institution over time.

tulspr_05_qacowen2_1People who are giving $10 today tend to be the people who are giving $500 or $1,000 five years from now and 10 years from now may be capable of really major gifts. And once they start the habit of giving and get invested in the university, it will probably be a lifelong activity, and they will give as their capacity to give increases.

TULANIAN: What do you see as your personal role in the campaign?

COWEN: My role is to be the chief spokesperson for the university, to be able to articulate what we have accomplished, what our dreams and aspirations are and how this campaign will help us achieve those dreams and aspirations. So I am the public face for what we hope to achieve as an institution. And in that regard, I will spend as much time as is required in visiting individuals and groups of friends and alumni of Tulane University wherever they exist throughout the country and internationally. I'll continue to tell the story and to make the case for why investment in Tulane University is so good for everyone, including those who give.

TULANIAN: If you could look in your crystal ball and glimpse a vision of Tulane five or 10 years down the road, what would you see?

COWEN: There are five things that I would really like to see characterize this institution five years from now. By far, one is the quality and character of the student body. When it's all said and done, great universities are composed of great students and great faculty. We're already blessed with a very distinguished student body and faculty but, once again, we have the promise to elevate ourselves even further. I always talk about both the academic quality and character of our students because both are important in life.

Secondly, I would like Tulane University to be well known for is its high quality research and impact in a few areas. We can't be all things to all people, but there are a few areas where, through our research efforts, we can really make a difference in the quality of life for people in our society. These areas in which we excel include regenerative medicine, infectious and emerging diseases, and environmental and climate control issues. Those are just three of several areas where I'd like us to be known as an institution that has done extremely high-quality and influential work.

Thirdly, I'd like us to be known as an institution where both undergraduate and graduate students have a unique and value-added collegiate experience because of our location, because of our size, because of the depth and breadth of programs we have, and because we have a very nurturing, supportive environment for students to learn in.

For a research university, that environment is very important. Research universities often have the reputation of not providing a nurturing and supportive environment. So I'd like us to be an institution that provides that kind of nurturing environment and is attentive to the holistic needs of students -- not just what happens to them in the classroom but also what happens to them in co-curricular and extracurricular activities.

I also would like us to be known by others as a stellar research university that really cares about community and is active in community engagement and involvement, both locally, regionally and nationally. We're trying to find ways to continually improve the quality of life in the community in which this university exists. Partnering with Tulane should be seen as a value-added, sustainable and asset-building activity for everybody involved.

The fifth thing I'd like to see is an institution that's continually investing in our future -- not just dollars, but investing our time, our energy and our brains in building the institution so that we maintain a philosophy of continuous improvement, striving for the next level of achievement, and doing whatever it takes in terms of resource allocation and acquisition to make sure that our dreams and aspirations always become a reality.


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